This week I will examine the response to Sandals unexpected withdrawal on Tuesday 15th January 2019 from the proposed large-scale development at Buccoo/Golden Grove Estates in Tobago. I was very surprised by Sandals stated refusal to proceed with this Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement in which no private capital was to be invested. When the Press Conference was announced, I believed that the deal for the proposed Resorts was to be signed.
It was clear that the mood from the head table was a gloomy one. The blame for this aborted project was placed on the ‘badgering’ and ‘negative publicity’ from a minority of commentators and political operators.
The striking official silence on the contents and implications of the MoU is damning, given the scale of the project and the amount of political capital which had been invested in the Tobago Sandals proposals.
The very MoU is itself a source of confusion, even as its terms are evaded by every official. We are told that it was non-binding and therefore our focus was misplaced. But if that were the case, how then can one explain the great efforts to avoid its publication in the nine months of my challenge? At pg 9 of Newsday on Thursday 17th January 2019, Tourism Minister, Randall Mitchell, is quoted as claiming that the MoU was ‘nothing untoward’. Once again, the inescapable question –
Can any of the defenders of this MoU give examples of another country entering a PPP in which the intention is to spend only Public Money to build and outfit the facility and grant tax/duty/work permit concessions to the Hotelier?
No quotas intended for employment, local supplies of goods or services and transfer pricing arrangements were explicitly facilitated. Well I tell you.
We are at an historic moment in which the usual pattern of development has been disrupted. We now know the proposed intention of the parties to a PPP, before any binding agreements have been signed or any concrete poured. Those terms were so one-sided that two broad torrents of discussion emerged. One which expressed horror at the terms of the MoU, from myself, Dr Vanus James, Reginald Dumas and Anselm Richards, together with a host of others on Social Media. The other was a series of attempts to cite supposed benefits and attack the critics by suggesting various political motives. That grouping included members of the Cabinet, of course, together with media colleagues such as Lennox Grant in the Sunday Express of 6th January 2019 – ‘Sandals still brightest hope for Tobago reset’ – with the astonishing stance –
“…At my distance from troubled Tobago tourism, and with my relative innocence about the business, I have defaulted to faith and hope in Sandals as a way to go, Especially so, in the absence of more promising options…“
The Government’s response has been to blame the collapse of this large-scale proposal on the actions of ‘naysayers’ and persons with political motivations. The entire conversation is being spun so that the critics are now being asked to account for their role in dismantling this promising project, said to be a game-changer.
The PM’s Conversation with the Media on Thursday 17th January 2019 was very much along those lines, with Dr Rowley responding at length to the critical statements of the Leader of the Opposition, Ms Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC.
This is yet another learning moment of political education, flowing directly from the release of the Sandals MoU. I understand and accept that the MoU was stated to be non-binding, but one also has to accept that it states the negotiated intentions of the parties. That is where this discussion has to start.
I was bemused to realise recently that one of the main defenders of the proposed Sandals project who had been strongly opposed to our critique was suggesting that what I need to do is to post the MoU. I pointed out that it had been posted with my first analysis on 5th December 2018 and that it had also been published on the OPM website on 28th November 2018, six weeks ago. Silence from that defender since then. You see?
The onus is now on the Government and its advisers to explain how these astonishing intentions came to form part of the Sandals MoU. Those of us who were critical of the MoU have no obligation to suggest alternatives or anything like that.
Our Public Officials have considerable resources at their disposal to gather sound advice and research on how best to proceed with these large-scale projects. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the proper advice was obtained by the decision-makers. For instance, were the MoU terms approved by legal advisers? Was the advice rejected or modified by Cabinet?
One of the persistent claims throughout this debacle, up to and including the withdrawal Press Conference, was that the existing model under which State-owned hotels are managed is satisfactory. The PS in the OPM, Maurice Suite, was the signatory of the 10th November 2016 letter from the Finance Ministry (at which he was then PS) to confirm that no such Audit or Management Review of those hotels had ever been done. So I ask myself: “Did PS Suite advise the PM that in fact government has no reliable figures for those hotels? Was that advice given, then ignored, or are we witness to a lapse in that the PM was not given the proper advice?”
A proper explanation of those MoU terms is sadly lacking, even after Dr Rowley’s three-hour Conversation with the Media.
Sidebar: The Negotiating Committee
The PM denied that a Negotiating Committee had been established under the Chairmanship of former Finance Minister Wendell Mottley. I previously referred to that Committee based on the official announcement from the Office of the Prime Minister as reported in the Trinidad Express on 30th June 2016 and the Jamaica Gleaner of 1st July 2016.
“…On 30th June 2016, former finance minister and international investment banker, Wendell Mottley, was named chairman of a negotiating team to arrive at an agreement between Government and all-inclusive operator Sandals Resorts for two hotels in Tobago. The other team members were Dr Terrence Farrell, Dr Rolph Balgobin, hotelier Michael Small, small farmer Glen Leslie and head of public/private partnership in the Ministry of Finance, Nadira Lyder, and two representatives to be named by the Tobago House of Assembly…”